Women Who Dared to Discover

Since antiquity, India has contributed enormously to science and mathematics. Zero (as a number) and the decimal system were the inventions of ancient Indian mathematicians. There are several notable scientists in India's rich history, each of whom earned the country immense pride and glory. Considerable women scientists have made noteworthy contributions to eclectic fields of science. Despite standing a minority in science, women currently occupy the most critical positions that were hitherto thought impossible for women. Throughout history, women scientists have earned Nobel Prizes or helmed top positions at NASA. In the area of science and technology, their lives serve as role models for all girls aspiring to make their mark. Let us look at some of the most outstanding Indian scientists.

Janaki Ammal 

Janaki Ammal held the prestigious post of Director-General of the Botanical Survey of India and was the first Indian woman scientist to win the Padma Shri in 1977. Ammal studied botany, an uncommon choice for women in those days. She earned an Honours Degree in Botany from the Presidency College in 1921. Her work in cytogenetics (an area of genetics concerned with the role chromosomes play in cellular behavior), as well as phytogeography (which focuses on the geographical distribution of plant species), made her stand out in the world of scientific research. 

Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi 

Regarded as the first Indian woman physician, Anandibai was the first woman to graduate with a two-year degree in Western Medicine in America. Her personal circumstances spurred her to pursue medicine. Married at the age of 9 to a widower 20 years her senior, she gave birth to her son at the age of 14 who died shortly thereafter due to lack of adequate medical facilities. His death inspired her to become a physician. She received international education with her husband's encouragement. Her studies at the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania marked her out as a true pioneer. 

Rajeshwari Chatterjee

At a time when scientific research was in its infancy, Rajeshwari Chatterjee became India's first woman engineer. Among the first women to pursue an engineering degree from Karnataka, Rajeshwari was awarded a government scholarship for her overseas education. At the University of Michigan, she studied electrical engineering and earned a Master's degree. With a doctoral degree under her belt, she returned to India to join the Department of Electrical Communication Engineering at IISc. She and her husband established India’s first microwave engineering lab.

Kalpana Chawla 

Kalpana Chawla is the first astronaut of Indian descent to venture into space. During her time aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, she served as a mission specialist and primary operator of the robot arm. Upon moving to the United States in 1982, she earned her master's degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington, a second master's degree at the University of Colorado Boulder in 1986, and a doctorate in 1988. On Columbia Flight STS-107, Kalpana was selected for her second flight, but it would end up being her last. The space shuttle Columbia disaster occurred on February 1, 2003 and Chawla was one of the crew members who perished in it. As the space shuttle returned to Earth, it disintegrated. As a mark of respect to Kalpana Chawla, NASA named one of its spacecraft after her.

Asima Chatterjee 

The Indian-born chemist is highly regarded for her work in organic chemistry - chemicals derived from plants, and phytochemistry - chemical compounds derived from plants. The Scottish Church College of the University of Calcutta awarded her a chemistry degree in 1936, after which she began to research. Among Asima's most notable research achievements are finding compounds derived from periwinkle which exhibit anticancer properties, and developing anti-epileptic and antimalarial medicines.

Irawati Karve

Irawati Karve was a pioneer among women in anthropology, a field in India that is primarily male-dominated. The work she has done spans storytelling and philosophy. She was the first woman to bring home the Sahitya Akademi award for Marathi for the book Yugant in 1968. Her contributions to anthropology included the founding of the Department of Anthropology at Pune University in 1963, as well as serving as Vice-Chancellor of the SNDT University. Besides, the Department of Anthropology at Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU) maintains a museum called Irawati Karve Museum of Anthropology, as part of its mission to preserve the Indian cultural heritage.

Dr. Aditi Pant

Aditi's trip to Antarctica in 1983 was the first for an Indian woman, as a professional oceanographer on an expedition to study geology and oceanography. When she was a sophomore at the University of Pune, Pant was considering taking up Oceanography after reading Alister Hardy's The Open Sea. Scholarships from the US government allowed her to study Marine Sciences at the University of Hawaii. Her Ph.D. was accomplished at Westfield College, University of London. This thesis examined the physiology of marine algae. Her experience includes working at the National Institute of Oceanography and the National Chemical Laboratory, two of India's most prestigious research institutes.

For centuries, women have made important contributions to science. However, it has taken too long for their discoveries to be recognized - if at all. Rare is the person, whether a child or an adult, who knows more than two or three female scientists from history - and, even then, there are usually only a few names mentioned over and over. It is high time that we bring their names and contributions to light.

The women scientists mentioned here are only the tip of an iceberg that has yet to be discovered, yet to be written about. Let each read regarding the achievements of various women scientists spark the interest of aspiring scientists.   

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